As part of the 2nd Annual North Carolina HIP (Historically-Informed Performance) Early Music Festival, the Duke Vespers Ensemble brought Polish choral music of the Renaissance/Early Baroque periods to Duke Chapel, in the context of a worship service of Choral Vespers.

Under the direction of Dr. Brian Schmidt, 16 members of the Vespers Ensemble chorus sang three works by mid-16th Century Polish composers Wacław of Szamotuły (in Latin, Venceslaus Samotulinus, c. 1533-c. 1568) and Marcin Leopolita, (c. 1540-c. 1584) and also an anthem by Mikołaj Zieleński (c. 1550-1615), whose musical style is more early-Baroque than Renaissance.

After Dr. Rob Horton’s fine improvised organ preludes on “St. Elizabeth“ and “Jesu, meine Freude,“ in styles which reflected the periods of the choral music which was to follow, the choir was first heard from the rear of the chapel in Wacław’s Compline introit, “Juź się zmierzcha” (“Now dusk and night come to us“). Singing in Polish, the choir’s voices floated through the darkened Gothic nave towards the choir/chancel area in which the majority of the far-too-small audience was seated; the exquisite blended choral sound reflected the colors which the setting sun was causing to be cast through the stained-glass windows upon the stone of the nave vaults.

Wacław’s music is solidly within the finest examples of the high-Renaissance choral traditions of its better-known Western European companions Palestrina and Tallis. In the traditional Compline hymn (sung in this service as an anthem) “Christe qui lux es et dies” (“O Christ, who is light and day”). we heard the mastery which caused Wacław to be named court composer for the Polish monarch, Sigismund II Augustus. The brief choral “Amen” which concluded the service’s benediction was composed by Leopolita, who was a performer in that same court’s ensemble.

Zieleński ‘s anthem, on the traditional Lenten text “Adoramus te, Christe” (“We adore you, O Christ”), was the only accompanied work on the program. The organ part, which primarily doubles the vocal lines, seemed louder than necessary to support the choir; the organ registers never seemed to “mesh” well with the choral sound. Perhaps the two forces blended better in the nave, but that area was essentially empty of listeners.

In a world which sorely needs as many moments of beauty as possible, one must wonder: where was everyone while the Duke Vespers Ensemble was singing so beautifully? There were only some two dozen people present, aside from the performers; few were students. Leaving the chapel, I saw the processions of students going about their various errands, many with their cell phones in use. Why were more of them not in the chapel to have their minds and spirits enriched? Where were those who later in the evening would pay to hear Handel’s Theodora, another of the “HIP“ series of concerts? Thanks to both sponsoring organizations for letting us be a part of this experience: to hear lesser-known music of worth, sung as well as you are likely to hear it anywhere (only one short harmonic glitch made its way into the “Christe qui lux…“), in the timeless spaces of Duke Chapel.

The HIP Festival continues through February 7. For details, see our calendar.